The State I Am In is the first of Christian Petzold’s cinema features and has also been identified as the first film of a trilogy which includes Gespenster (Ghosts, 2005) and Yella (2007). The film was written by Petzold and his former film school tutor Harun Faroki, who co-wrote five of Petzold’s features. The film’s story is very similar to that of the Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty (US 1988) but with the location changed to Europe. IMDb notes that the script by Naomi Foner for Running On Empty is not mentioned in the credits for The State I Am In.
The narrative begins in the Algarve where teenager Jeanne is living in an apartment block by the sea with her parents. The family have been ‘on the run’ since before Jeanne was born, wanted by the German Police and presumably through Interpol by other police forces across Europe. They have had to move several times and Jeanne is getting tired of the constant upheaval and the lack of opportunity to make long-term friends. She meets Heinrich, a young German, but before they can spend much time together, she and her parents must move again. This time the move is more urgent and the situation more desperate. They are forced to return to Germany to seek out old contacts in the hope of funding a final escape to Brazil.
The narrative combines elements of the thriller genre repertoire and the fugitives on the run with the youth picture/’coming of age’ story of Jeanne and Heinrich (who she will meet again in the familiar Petzold territory of the Elbe River area). We never discover what the parents, Clara and Hans actually did that caused them to flee. They are used to defending themselves and carrying a weapon and they are clearly well-educated and disciplined so they do appear to be political activists rather than criminals. Jeanne is experiencing an adolescence that is becoming frustrating since she is missing friendships and the chance to explore the pleasures of consumer capitalism – new clothes and music in particular. She must in a sense ‘work’ for her parents, shopping and running other errands to protect their identities. In return she is home-schooled. Ironically Jeanne will become a petty criminal because she can only acquire new clothes and CDs by shoplifting. This in turn increases her frustration.
I haven’t seen Gespenster, but placing Yella alongside The State I Am In does make sense. In both films a young(ish) German woman is at the centre of a narrative which seems to be allegorical with the woman representing a Germany that is struggling to find a new identity. In Yella, the struggle is about the inequalities of East and West after re-unification. In The State I Am In it is a struggle to get past the political divisions of the 1970s to 1990s in which various left organisations attacked the institutions of the West German state (and its personnel) through direct action. The state responded with anti-communist measures against leftist activists, instigating surveillance and reviving the Berufsverbot, an employment ban for public service posts first introduced in the 1930s. The only direct reference in the film is when Jeanne sneaks into a school screening of the Alan Resnais documentary Night and Fog (France 1956) about the Nazi death camps. The left action groups of the 1970s accused the West German government of a failure to confront the history of fascism in Germany.
The 1970s politics was also about the Vietnam War and the American military presence in Germany (the British and French military presence was seemingly less provocative?). The political discourses in West Germany were evident in some of the ‘New German Cinema’ films of the 1970s. Petzold doesn’t make obvious references to political struggles but he does use American culture in Germany as one of the elements that inspires Jeanne. The film begins with a scene in which Jeanne selects a song on a jukebox in a seaside café, Tim Hardin’s 1966 song ‘How Can We Hang On to a Dream’. This plaintive song might be read as a commentary on the film itself in the sense of a couple who try to keep their political convictions intact. The same song plays, non-diegetically, over the final credits. It’s earlier appearance is the background to Heinrich coming over to bum a cigarette off Jeanne in the café. He turns out to be a surfer with a poster for The Endless Summer (US 1965), the cult surfing documentary, in his room. He tells Jeanne that he is obsessed with Brian Wilson, the creative leader of The Beach Boys. I couldn’t help thinking of the early Wim Wenders movies from New German Cinema in which many characters play American music.
When Petzold made The State I Am In he had already completed some short films and two features made for TV. For his début cinema feature he had the support of his regular collaborators such as DoP Hans Fromm, film editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will who have generally stayed with him over his career. The State I Am In doesn’t have the lustre of the recent films such as Undine (2020) but its pared down style matches the feel of its narrative. Petzold is well-served by his trio of lead actors with Julia Hummer as Jeanne, Barbara Auer as Clara and Richy Müller as Hans. The supporting roles, especially Bilge Bingul as Heinrich, are also strong. I enjoyed the film and I’m pleased to have seen it in the current MUBI season of Petzold films. I did see the Sidney Lumet film back in 1988 but I can’t remember it well enough to make a comparison. I just remember that it was River Phoenix who played the slightly older teenager.
Here is the opening of the film:
Keen to see this after Transit, one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Running on Empty was good at the time, with a bit of a sentimental flourish at the end.
If you can watch The State I Am In on MUBI, it’s worth catching Yella as well (if you haven’t already seen it) since the two do go together. There is no sentiment at the end of The State I Am In (apart from whatever you make of the Tim Hardin song).
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Cool, I’m a late convert via Transit, but should be a pleasure to circle back. Thanks for the info.
… they do appear to be political activists rather than criminals.”
The proper term is ‘terrorist’. Auer and Müller were 41 and 45 when the film was made, so their characters are obviously former members of the murderous Rote Armee Fraktion (a.k.a., Baader-Meinhoff Gang), likely second- or third wave.
For a powerful, jarring look at that group, I highly recommend Der Baader Meinhoff Komplex (2008), with a stellar cast including Bruno Ganz, Johanna Wokalek, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Hannah Herzsprung. The film attempts to grapple with those youth’s spontaneous, violent rejection of the comfort and security their parents’ generation had so carefully rebuilt following the war, a phenomenon which still perplexes Germany.
I don’t recall seeing Die Innere Sicherheit, but the title (lit., ‘The Inner Safety/Security’) is loaded with irony. These former terrorists, who assassinated bankers and sought to topple capitalism, now find their cozy bourgeois lives, and their daughter’s desire for consumer goods, disrupted by their past.
I carefully pointed out that we don’t know what they did to cause them to go ‘on the run’ in the 1980s. Perhaps they did kidnap a banker, we don’t know. I try to never use the word ‘terrorist’, mainly because it has become such a provocative term. I would consider many groups so described as freedom fighters but others as political enemies. Many ‘terrorists’ become members of governments in due course such as in Israel or Northern Ireland. Many governments themselves commit atrocities. It’s not a helpful term other than to suggest that victims of actions are terrorised. I thought we had a blog post on Der Baader Meinhof Komplex but now I see we discussed the events in posts on other films and events.
“Innere Sicherheit” in Germany is what’s known as ‘Homeland Security’ in the US. The term is inextricably linked with “Terrorismus.” A German audience would instantly recognize Clara and Hans as former RAF members — non-violent political activists would have no need to go on the lam.
No one familiar with the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s crimes, or who’s even only viewed the historically accurate 2008 film, would confuse the RAF for ‘freedom fighters.’
Have you actually seen the film? The title could refer to the security of the family since that is really what the film is about. As I said, I don’t think we ever learn what caused the couple to leave Germany, only that it meant that they were always afraid of being investigated by the police wherever they were. There were several leftist groups that carried out criminal acts in West Germany in the 1970s-80s. I don’t think Petzold is interested in what they actually did then, only in what they find themselves doing now and how it affects their relationship with their daughter.
I think we should end our discussion about political struggles at this point. I think you have misread what I put in my last comment.
I believe the title is a double entendre: its common meaning is ‘internal security’, associated with anti-terrorism, but literally means ‘inner safety.’ I haven’t seen the film, but my hunch is the family’s present desire for safety is meant to be juxtaposed to the parents’ earlier disruption of public safety.
NB: in an interview, Petzold specifically mentions the RAF.
I’m not trying to pick a political fight, just offer an insight that may unfold more layers in the film.
Compare to Fremde Haut (2005), about an Iranian lesbian who poses as a man to gain asylum in Germany. The title literally means ‘foreign skin’, but the colloquialism ‘in fremder Haut’ means feeling uncomfortable with who you are or how you act. That play on words is lost in the English title “Unveiled.”
Thanks for this. I did realise that we have very different political positions. I am sure you are right that Petzold meant to use an ambiguous title. I just wanted to be careful not to explore a discussion about political activism which is not presented in the film, although as I did mention there is a reference to the left view that the West German state did not properly deal with the history of the Nazi period.
Thanks too for the URL of Der Tagesspiegel article. It is beyond my schoolboy German of more than 50 years ago, but I will try Google translate for the parts I can’t translate. I have blogged on Fremde Haut which I enjoyed. I also wrote about another German-Iranian film Die Fremde.
I have now read Der Tagesspiegel interview. It is interesting and revealing. I think it confirms my presentation of the film’s narrative. It also reveals ideas I perhaps missed and it fills in Petzold’s ideas about the RAF which he didn’t put directly into the film.
Granted, ‘unveiled’ is itself a decent double entendre, but doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the story.